A Question of Authority

by Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

A recent post on Soledad O’Brien and a conversation with a friend got me thinking about issues of race and racial authority.

In the post about Soledad O’Brien
, Danielle Belton examined O’Brien’s multiracial identity and its reception in the Black community via her work with CNN’s Black in America series. An issue that sprang to my mind was, “Does O’Brien have authority to speak about/for the Black community?” Many commenters did not believe she did.

This question echoed a similar issue that a close friend brought up a few weeks ago. Speaking candidly with me, he told me that he thought I shouldn’t talk about racial issues “past a certain point.” His reasoning was that, because I “pass for white”, I haven’t dealt with the same type of racism as those who do not pass. He is biracial like me, with a similar Iranian and Irish-Scottish makeup as mine. He passes for white as well. And the message I felt I was getting from this friend is that I shouldn’t talk about racism “past a certain point” (his meaning on where this point was exactly wasn’t clear) because I’m not “dark” enough.
My initial reaction was irritation, certainly. Though I’m aware of the privileges I reap as one who often passes, and aware that this has (along with socioeconomic and geographical factors) has shaped my life experiences, I was annoyed at being told that I overstep a boundary that I didn’t know existed.

I consider myself to have knowledge and expertise about Middle Eastern (particularly Iranian) women because this is one of my identities, because I know many Middle Eastern women, and because I do a lot of homework on the subject. I don’t believe this makes me a spokesperson for all Middle Eastern women everywhere. I don’t believe it’s my right to speak for other Middle Eastern women if they wish to speak for themselves; in my opinion, it’s usually better for people to speak for themselves. And, no matter how much homework I do, there are always viewpoints that I will not be qualified to speak on.

A very common example is the denial of a voice, or appropriating and generalizing their experiences. Often, white academics or non-profit workers will speak for Middle Eastern and South Asian women on what issues “they” face, when there are plenty of Middle Eastern and South Asian academics and activists who could do this. For Middle Eastern and South Asian women, denying these people their voices has shades of colonialism to it, but what about for other communities? Would a South Asian professor of African American studies, for example, have authority to speak on issues facing Black Americans?

But being from a specific background doesn’t automatically make you an expert on hundreds of others who may share your background, nationality, religion, etc. I try consciously to avoid doing this when I write about Muslim or Middle Eastern women; just because I’m Muslim and have Iranian heritage doesn’t automatically mean I know jack about female genital cutting, for example.

So what defines an authority on the subject?

Is it necessarily someone who has lived that experience?

Must it be someone who has a degree in this area of study?

Who has the right to speak as an authority on a race or ethnicity?

Another important issue is determining where this authority comes from. Who gets to decide who’s an authority or not? Who decides who can represent a group or speak for a people if these people cannot (or will not) speak for themselves?